The Mill and the Cross
I know you (editor's note: that would be me, Dan Jardine) have only seen the first few minutes of this film (editor's note: I've since seen the whole film. And really dug it), so I won't spoil it for you. Not because I am going to shut up about it. Because there is nothing to spoil. Well, that is, insofar as we all issue spoiler alerts only with respect to divulging information about plot. Is it possible to spoil setting, characterizations, atmosphere, theme? I guess so, in the most basic sense of not wanting to hear the opinion or analysis of something not already personally experienced. You might save this review for after you've seen the film yourself, but I don't think it will make a difference. The Mill and the Cross is unspoilable.
This is because this movie is not a "movie." Falling squarely between being an etude and an homage, it is an essay. Inspired by and entirely about Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting, The Way to Calvary, The Mill and the Cross is very much a companion piece to the book of the same name by the art historian, Michael Francis Gibson. This might give the impression that the film is a public-television style documentary. Wrong impression. Or it might give the impression that the film is a history-channel style dramatization. Again, wrong impression. But enough impressionism. We are talking about the Flemish Renaissance.
Not talking about it, actually. The Mill and the Cross is almost completely free of of language. Human bodies make all sorts of sounds, including vocal utterances, but there are very few words spoken. And the few words that are spoken are not conversations between two or more people. There is no dialogue. Instead, a mere handful of cursory speeches are given by individuals who just happen to be in the company of others. Ostensibly said to these other characters, these monological acts are actually soliloquies a second-step abstractly removed. These meta-thought-balloons belong to Bruegel himself or his patron, not as historical personages but rather as "colour commentators" on the concepts present in the painting. This holds as well for the female figure drawn by the film-maker from the painting. Any other vocalizing is so much theatrical-extra "rhubarb, rhubarb" equally meaningful only at a second-step abstractly removed. It ushers not from dramatic characters properly understood but rather painted images that have been "brought to life" as cinematic images.
This bringing-to-life is the raison d'etre of the film. The Mill and the Cross is an animation of a still life. But be clear. The purpose is not to enhance the non-moving picture by making it move for us. The exact opposite. The purpose is to appreciate the non-moving picture but making us move into it. This is no trivial difference. The former would be a lame Disney cartoon. The latter is a remarkable non-movie movie. The Mill and the Cross is two-dimensional celluloid in motion at 24 frames per second. Yet the experience of watching it is akin to moving about a three-dimensional model of the painting, walking around inside a museum diorama, interacting with a hologram.
Slow and a little bit boring, yet this feels absolutely as it should and dialectically makes the experience captivating and intense. Hyper-accelerated as we are today by the speed of our technologies, it is quite a profound feeling to stay still and actually contemplate anything. The Way to Calvary certainly merits our sustained attention. The Mill and the Crossprovides a sort of stoner's take on Bruegel's masterpiece, if the stoner happens to be a scholar with expertise in the work of the genius painter. It is at once intellectually acute to the point of being a pedagogical pronouncement and mysteriously enveloping to the point of being a trippy scene.
This feeling of sleep-walking through a realistic world unrealistically conjured by a sorcerer is achieved by the truly artistic application of CGI. The obvious artificiality of CGI that so often obstructs the very effect it is employed to obtain, in this instance serves to create a mesmerizing interface of details from the painting and the extrapolation of these staged for the camera. After all, the original work is itself an artificial representation. Using the phoniness of CGI to interface with the phoniness of painting, The Mill and the Cross manages to liquefy the heavy oil long ago dried solid on the canvas.